Businessman implicated in $1bn bank frauds linked to Air Moldova acquisition

Businessman implicated in $1bn bank frauds linked to Air Moldova acquisition
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest October 5, 2018

The Russian owners behind Avia Invest, the firm that operates Chisinau Airport, are believed to be the actual buyers of Moldova’s flag carrier Air Moldova, according to multiple converging sources commenting on the deal. 

The Moldovan government recently announced that privately-owned Romanian Blue Air had taken over Air Moldova in a €61mn deal, alongside two Moldovan investors. 

Avia Invest is managed by Moldovan businessman Ilan Shor (or more recently by his mother, since prosecutors are investigating him and judges have already issued a sentence in his name), better known as the visible beneficiary of Moldova's $1bn bank frauds. Shor is understood to enjoy the informal support of unrivalled Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc.

Formally, since 2016, Avia Invest has been controlled by Cyprus-based Komaksavia Airport Invest Ltd, which owns 95% of Avia Invest. Komaksavia Airport Invest in turn is owned by Modris Karklinsh, a 62-year-old Moscow resident with no other businesses. Such investors are typically used as proxies for larger ones who prefer to stay behind the scenes. Habarovski Aeroport, from Russia, owns the remaining of 5%.

The Air Moldova sale was presented by the Moldovan authorities as a success story, resulting from the government’s efforts to find a credible investor able to secure the financial resources needed by the loss-making air company.

However, it prompted questions within Moldova about the real buyers of the company. Formally, the buyer is a limited liability company, Civil Aviation Group (CAG) set up in Moldova on August 23 with a capital of MDL500,000 (€26,000) and managed by Latvian resident Pomers Dzintars. 

Blue Air holds 49% of CAG’s shares with the remaining 51% shared by two Moldovan residents, Andrei Yanovich and Sergey Melnik

It is also unclear how could CAG will pay the €61.5mn and find the financial resources needed by Air Moldova. Blue Air admitted it would not contribute financially to the deal, but would use its know-how, while the Moldovan investors come up with the financial resources, officials from the Romanian air carrier told Ziarul Financiar, commenting on the purchase of Air Moldova.

While Melnik and Yanovich reportedly have no prior experience in the airline industry, one advisor in Melnik’s company, Wolf Blitz Financial Consultants, is Vitalie Botgros, found. Botgros served from 1995 to 2004 “as Vice President for Finance and a shareholder of Moldavian Airlines [possibly an approximate translation of Air Moldova] and Carpathair [possibly Romania’s Carpatair, set up in 1999],” as he declared in his public resume. He was also a manager at the Russian Transmashholding. Newsmaker points out that Kolomensky Zavod OJSC, which is part of this holding, was one of the founders of Avia Invest when it became the concessionaire of Chisinau International Airport.

Notably, Moldova’s government will receive only €2.6mn out of the €61.5mn announced value of the deal, with the rest of the money going to Air Moldova’s creditors — among which Chisinau Airport is not surprisingly the largest. Under this scenario, the business logic of the deal makes more sense: CAG does not need a lot of financial resources but will cancel its claims against Air Moldova. Unofficial sources quoted in local media claim the value of the debt has been artificially increased with the support of Air Moldova insiders. 

Blue Air has itself a complicated past, its assets having been taken over from its founder Nelu Iordache by his partner Gheorghe Racaru in 2013 for some €1.5mn, reportedly with the substantial support of the intelligence services and government officials.

Sorin Ionita, public policies expert at local think tank Expert Forum, told that Blue Air has no expertise in the part of the world where Air Moldova operates. The two companies have very different type of aircraft and their routes neither overlap nor complement each other, he said.